Sermon for Lent 1 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“And lead us not into temptation.” We make this prayer to our heavenly Father every week, and some of us more than once every day. This makes God’s action in this morning’s Gospel very curious indeed: “After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” What God does is precisely the opposite of what is asked of God in the Lord’s prayer. By the Holy Spirit God the Father leads His Son directly into temptation.

And, in some ways, our own forty day sojourn in the wilderness, our observance of Lent, is a time in which God leads us into temptation, too. If you’ve given something up—meat or chocolate or selfish thoughts or whatever—you’ve probably already been tempted by opportunities to avail yourself of that old comfort or that old habit. I know I have. If you’ve taken something on—a prayer practice or other spiritual discipline—you’ve probably already been tempted to be less than conscientious in keeping it up. The old ways are more comfortable; they’re safe. It is significant that in addition to power, the devil tempts Jesus with comfort (the comfort of a bit of bread in the midst of his fasting) and he tempts our Lord with safety (specifically, protection from falling down a cliff).

But why might God lead us into temptation? Why was Jesus led by the Holy Spirit into a time of trial rather than flight from it? Well, the simple answer is that sometimes God answers our prayers with a “no”, and that includes our perennial prayer to “lead us not into temptation.” But that doesn’t get to the larger question, the “why?” question, so here is my humble attempt at an answer.

It has been my experience that during the periods in which I’ve been most conscientious about prayer and fasting, in which my own relationship with God seems strongest, that I have been most open to temptation. It is usually the temptation which the church calls “sloth”, one of those deadly sins: laziness not in completing tasks at work, but in maintaining rigor and regularity in the very practices which has forged my relationship with my Lord, namely prayer and fasting. I find myself in pretty good company in this struggle. Ascetics and mystics from St. Anthony to Teresa of Avilla to Thomas Merton have noted the same struggle. Precisely when their prayer life seemed most effective, just when they seemed closest to God, was when the temptation to slack off a bit seemed most prevalent and most disastrous.

On one level it is because the enemy redoubles his efforts when he’s losing, when the faithful Christian has turned more profoundly from his crafts and wiles toward the loving God. The first Sunday of Lent is as good a time as any to remember that radical evil exists, and that the defeat experienced by the agents of said evil incites them to tempt the faithful with even more resolve.

But this still doesn’t explain why God led Jesus and why God leads us through the valley of the shadow of death to begin with, why God gives these tempters the chance to snare us.

The answer is paradoxical but at the same time unsurprising. God leads us into temptation because God loves us. God loves us so much that He trusts us, which is perhaps the ultimate expression of love. God trusts us enough to give us the freedom to be petulant children if we choose, to rebel if we choose, and like the prodigal son to choose once again to return and be forgiven and to be given the fatted calf of boundless mercy.

God trusted Adam and Eve enough to place the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. God loved them enough to give them the freedom to choose, to choose whether to obey or to yield to temptation. God loves and trusts us enough not to coddle us, but rather to give us the opportunity to choose to deny Him and disappoint Him. In other words, God gives us freedom to be adults. But God’s love and trust is even greater than this, for God gives the children of Eve the chance to return after countless mistakes—countless occasions in which we indulge in the same forbidden fruit as our forebears—to return and be saved, to make another go of it through fasting and prayer.

We may, of course, still ask God to “lead us not into temptation”, to deliver us from the time of trial, and God will sometimes answer with a “yes”. God knows what temptations will destroy us when we’re at a point of weakness, and we can be thankful when God spares us from the opportunity to fall back into a destructive pattern. But we can also be thankful, as hard as it may be sometimes, that God respects us enough to let us choose to rage and rebel. We can be thankful, as one prayer in the BCP puts it, for those failures and disappointments which remind us of our dependence on God alone. May this holy season of Lent, then, be for us not just a reminder of our sinfulness and our need for repentance, but also a joyous celebration of our redemption and of the freedom God gives us to accept it. Let us be thankful that the chance we have to confess Christ with our lips and to believe on Him in our hearts means something, because we’re not automota, because we’re not robots who couldn’t choose otherwise, because being an adult is hard but God trusts us to grow up. Be thankful, and with thanksgiving return to the Lord who richly pardons and brings us to new and unending life.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today, I am reminded that I am a sinner and I am going to die. And I love it! Now let me explain. I think there is a generational dynamic at work here. Please take the following not as a denunciation of one generation over another–either the dismissive phrase “okay, boomer” some of my cohort are known to use as a cudgel or the “millenials are ruining X” (X being all the things my generation’s influence on the market is purported to be ruining from chain restaurants to golf to paper napkins to the very idea of home-ownership). Anyway, there’s a lot of blame to go around, but I think in mostly equal measure.

That disclaimer out of the way, I did not grow up during a time in which children were expected to be seen and not heard. I grew up long after the decline of civil society and institutional loyalty and social and familial responsibilities being a given had already begun in earnest. These trends largely began as a reaction to what was likely an overemphasis on the collective versus the individual.

Instead, I grew up during the period in which young people were told they were special and could do anything they put their minds to and that the greatest goods were individualism and self-determination. Since I am married to somebody who works in the children’s department of the public library I have confirmed that this is still one of the primary perspectives being championed by children’s literature today.

I think we are only now starting to see that we may have over-corrected to our peril. I am not suggesting that self-esteem is bad or that people (adults as well as youngsters) shouldn’t value the gifts they have to contribute; those gifts are ultimately from God, after all. I do think, though, that this has led so many of us as a generation into unrealistic expectations about what life will be like and what we are owed and, at the same time, a pernicious assumption that we must be perfect because we naturally have it in ourselves to be perfect. We’re all special snowflakes (right?) and how this assumption plays out can have diametric but, perhaps, equally dangerous implications. Either we can be selfish monsters who rage when the world doesn’t give us what we deserve or else we can start to believe we were simply lied to and must be worthless or something because all that special “snowflakeness” didn’t pan out, and we’re underemployed and living in our parents’ basements and we choose to do the wrong thing sometimes even though we were told doing the right thing was just a matter of fiat, of willing to use the gifts we had, which we were told was enough.

This is a sort of straightjacket, this perfectionism and entitlement combining to immobilize us. And what is the way out out of it? I think step one may be the hardest, but the most necessary- “acknowledge the following proposition: ‘I am a sinner, and I’m going to die.’”

All I’ve said about generational concerns notwithstanding, I think this point is in fact universally applicable, it may just strike those who grew up under a moral-therapeutic model of human identity and value as more acute, because that model (the model of what I’ve called before from this pulpit the Stuart Smalley approach – “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and, doggone it, people like you”) makes the basic emptiness of such an approach more acute. In simpler terms, we all need to be freed from the impossible expectations of moral perfectionism and total self-sufficiency. We all need to be reminded that we are sinners and we are going to die.

This naturally lets a lot of the pressure off, but it’s about more than that. I said earlier that this is just the first step to the solution of getting us out of the straightjacket of perfectionism and entitlement. After that realization we are able to see that there is a way out of this dilemma. When we see we simply cannot measure up by virtue of our own will and efforts, we are able to call on the one who is our helper. When we say that we are sinners, that that is central to our being, not just the agglomeration of personal mistakes, but rather a flaw in our nature we cannot fix on our own by just being good, then we can finally do the one needful thing, call upon the one who doesn’t just teaches us how to be better, but whose own righteousness makes us better despite ourselves and our perennial inability to learn or remember that moral lesson. When we are told we are going to die, that we are mortal, we are given the opportunity to rely on the one whose very nature transcends our basic finitude and contingency.

So, that is what we are about this day, but I’ve been asked why we have to keep doing this. Is there not, I’ve been asked (perhaps in a slightly accusatory tone on one or two occasions), a point at which we can stop talking about sin? My answer is that I cannot speak for anybody else who may have achieved some degree of sanctification in this life greater than my own rather low level of achievement in this regard; I personally need this reminder daily, sometimes hourly, and especially on days like today, as we enter a season of more intense and intentional reliance on the one who saves us. I need it, because I so easily forget and fall back into the sort of pride that has me convince myself that I can do it on my own. To use the language of Paul and of the Reformers, I need the Law continually to convict me so that I can accept the Grace God offers through his Son.

This affirmation–“I am a sinner and I’m going to die”–then, is not gloomy, but liberating, because just the other side of that affirmation is the realization (whether for the first time or the millionth) that we are redeemed and we are promised new life. Thanks be to God!

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If you’ve done much hiking, particularly hiking up mountains, you’ll know that the old saying “it’s all down hill from here” may well not be as comforting a thought as it’s supposed to be. Certainly the uphill climb can be more tiring, but the trip back down has its own difficulties and takes its own toll on your body. When you’re walking uphill your muscles are working hard, but when you’re hiking downhill, gravity does much of the work, and so your joints, particularly those in your knees, are absorbing the impact. Plus, it’s a great deal more dangerous hiking steeply downhill, as one can easily let gravity take them too fast, leading to a fall.

But what’s always been the most difficult thing about the descent for me is its psychological difficulty. In college, my friends and I did a lot of backpacking in the northern New York and New England. We’d usually pick a particularly daunting summit and spend a day hiking to some base camp, a day to go up and down the mountain, and a day to hike back to the car. Excitement would build as we pushed ourselves up the mountain, and when we got to the top there was this feeling of both accomplishment and relief.

We’d usually stay on the summit for an hour or more, procrastinating. It’s not that we were too tired to begin the descent, and it wasn’t necessarily because the vista was too beautiful not to spend so much time at the top on the mountain. Sometimes the summit would be socked in, and we couldn’t see more than a few yards ahead of us, but we still stayed up there. We were putting off the descent, delaying the inevitable, because of a lack of motivation. We’d accomplished what we came for, and the slow, dangerous hike back down wouldn’t end with a great sense of accomplishment in itself. It was a necessary evil.

Peter’s response in this morning’s gospel is comparable. Of course, Jesus and the disciples climbed an actual mountain before the transfiguration and had to go back down, but it’s not a lack of motivation about the literal journey back down that leads Peter to recommend building tents and staying at the top.

Six days earlier, Peter had made his great confession, he had recognized Christ’s identity, and Jesus pulls the rug out from under his disciple:

From that time [Matthew writes] Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

We know what happened next. Peter expresses his misgivings about his Lord’s understanding that he must be killed, and Jesus rebukes Peter (actually calls him “Satan”) for his lack of faith, not two verses after he commends Peter for recognizing him as Messiah.

All of this would have been fresh in the minds of the disciples on the day of the Transfiguration, and after so long a journey they had taken with their Lord over the previous three years, the mountaintop experience would have been not only a literal but a figurative summit. They would have, to their minds, accomplished what they came for. Here was their teacher, and finally they see him in all his glory. They see Jesus in dazzling white surrounded by Elijah and Moses, God’s most highly favored prophets. Here, on the summit of Mount Tabor, the disciples would have seen what they came for: final, incontrovertible proof that this Jesus of Nazareth whom they had been following was none other than the Messiah.

Who wouldn’t want to stay on the mountaintop, knowing that the long, dangerous journey downhill would end with their master’s gruesome death? Our tendency to put off the inevitable is nothing new, and Peter’s reluctance to go back down the mountain would probably have been our own response.

We are in the same situation today as Peter was then. For one thing, our observance of the Christian year forces us into something like Peter’s reluctance. We’ve been slogging up the hill over the last several weeks, learning more and more about the moral demands incumbent on us as Christians over the season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. We’re now at the top of the mountain and we’re celebrating it. You’ll notice that our hymns this morning are not short on “Alleluias”. We’ll extend this celebration a couple of days, as we enjoy a great feast together on Shrove Tuesday.

And then, we’ll come back down the mountain the next morning. We’ll start our annual, communal journey to the cross and the grave. Through the difficult, dangerous path of prayer and fasting we’ll approach Calvary again.

This communal journey up and down mountains we take through the church year, reflects our own individual journeys. We each have mountaintop experiences at various points in our lives, and then we have to come down the mountain and walk through the desert for a while. And while we’re in those spiritual wastelands, we pray that the experience back on the mountain gives us courage to keep going, and we know that remaining steadfast in prayer will give us the nourishment we need, whether we recognize it at the time or not.

So, today, let’s procrastinate on the mountaintop for a little bit, but not too long. We can’t build a tent and live this day forever. Let’s sing our Alleluia’s forth in duteous praise, but then be ready for the hard journey of Lent that begins on Wednesday, knowing that the road downhill will be hard, but that Easter joy, when it comes, will take us by surprise and make our Holy Lent all the holier, all the more worthwhile.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.